The Center of Our Faith

John 13:  1 It was before Passover, and Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and to return to the Father. He had always loved his followers in this world, and he loved them to the very end.

2 Even before the evening meal started, the devil had made Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, decide to betray Jesus.

3 Jesus knew that he had come from God and would go back to God. He also knew that the Father had given him complete power. 4 So during the meal Jesus got up, removed his outer garment, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 He put some water into a large bowl. Then he began washing his disciples’ feet and drying them with the towel he was wearing.

6 But when he came to Simon Peter, that disciple asked, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7 Jesus answered, “You don’t really know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8 “You will never wash my feet!” Peter replied.

“If I don’t wash you,” Jesus told him, “you don’t really belong to me.”

9 Peter said, “Lord, don’t wash just my feet. Wash my hands and my head.”

10 Jesus answered, “People who have bathed and are clean all over need to wash just their feet. And you, my disciples, are clean, except for one of you.” 11 Jesus knew who would betray him. That is why he said, “except for one of you.”

12 After Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet and had put his outer garment back on, he sat down again. Then he said:

Do you understand what I have done? 13 You call me your teacher and Lord, and you should, because that is who I am. 14 And if your Lord and teacher has washed your feet, you should do the same for each other. 15 I have set the example, and you should do for each other exactly what I have done for you. 16 I tell you for certain that servants are not greater than their master, and messengers are not greater than the one who sent them. 17 You know these things, and God will bless you, if you do them.
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Last week, we learned that Jesus set in motion the events for the last week of his life by bringing Lazarus back to life—after he’d been dead for four days. This was the act the Jewish authorities needed to spur them into action. How different if they’d been inspired to follow Jesus; instead, acting out of fear, they conspired to kill him.

Jesus knows what is coming: somehow, he is going to be captured and killed.

For three years, he has been teaching a new way of life, a new way of living, thinking, being. If the lessons haven’t been learned by now, his whole mission has been a failure.

On this night, as described by the author of the gospel, Jesus and his followers are celebrating a significant Jewish holiday: the Passover. This holiday celebrates the escape of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Do you know this story?

Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, went directly to the Pharaoh to ask that the Jews be freed to leave Egypt. The Pharaoh refused, of course. Why would he want to lose his greatest source of cheap labor? God sent a variety of plagues, ten in number to convince the Pharaoh, who would have received quite a bit of pressure from his people who had to endure the plagues. The final plague was cruel: the first born son of every family would die. The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes, hence the English name of the holiday.

That plague worked; Pharaoh’s own child died. The Jews hurriedly packed and took off. Pharaoh did change his mind and sent his soldiers after them. That led to the famous crossing of the Red Sea and the wandering in the desert for forty years.

So, back to our story. Jesus and his disciples are observing this meal of remembrance. To the disciples, this is normal—-and it is their last normal time with Jesus.

What was it like for Jesus to watch his disciples during this gathering? Jesus had figured out what was coming next for him, but the disciples were perhaps still hopeful that life would go on as before. They had warned Jesus not to go to Jerusalem. Thomas, the realist, had finally said, “We might as well go and die with him.” And here they were, in Jerusalem, eating the Passover meal like every other member of the Jewish nation. Perhaps the difference was that in every other household, an air of celebration prevailed. In the room where Jesus and the disciples gathered, impending doom hung in the air.

Picture the scene: the group is eating the traditional meal, which always includes lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. There is small talk among the disciples. Then Jesus surprises them.

So during the meal Jesus got up, removed his outer garment, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 He put some water into a large bowl. Then he began washing his disciples’ feet and drying them with the towel he was wearing.

This act was out of order and out of character. Foot-washing was common, a courtesy provided by the host. Sometimes a servant would wash the feet of visitors, but just
as often, each guest would wash his own feet. This was never the job of the host. Yet, here Jesus was, performing this humble task.

Have you ever washed anyone’s feet? In your own home, you have. But in public, at someone else’s house? And would you let anyone else wash your feet? Would you want to touch anyone else’s feet?

For several years I ran a retreat program at a church camp. We called it Pilgrimage and it consisted of three weekends of study and contemplation and activity. The final act of the last weekend was foot-washing. As the leader, I would wash a person’s feet in a basin of water, then dry them carefully. During the washing and drying I told the person what I most valued about him or her. Then that person would wash the next person’s feet, repeating the procedure. One gentleman refused because he was ashamed of the appearance of his feet. How many of you would refuse to have me wash your feet because they showed signs of wear? By the time you get to a certain age, your feet are different from those of a child.

Peter, understandably, balked at this seeming impropriety: 6 But when he came to Simon Peter, that disciple asked, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus answered, “You don’t really know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “You will never wash my feet!” Peter replied.

In the case of Jesus and the disciples, they felt awkward because they had been the caretakers of Jesus all these years. Now, on this quiet, but tense night, Jesus was touching them in a way that should have been humiliating but was in fact, loving.

And loving is the nature of Jesus. Loving is at the heart of this story and at the heart of our faith.

He had always loved his followers in this world, and he loved them to the very end.

Have you ever noticed how we do the most humiliating things for the people we love most? Have you ever changed a diaper? Have you ever walked through an airport with baby poop covering your dress? Have you ever told a child to throw up in your hands because you just washed the rugs? Have you ever bathed a parent?

Our love knows no limits when it comes to those closest to us.

Jesus washed the feet of everyone in the room, including the feet of Judas Iscariot. How did Judas feel, knowing that he was going to betray Jesus. Did Jesus wash Judas’ feet with extra tenderness, knowing that Judas would betray him?

Jesus knows what is coming, he knows how his disciples will desert him, and yet he declares his love for each of them as pours water over their feet, massages them a little, and carefully drys them. Each foot of each disciple.

Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and to return to the Father. He had always loved his followers in this world, and he loved them to the very end.

Jesus knew that Judas would betray him, that Peter would deny him, and yet no one received a warning or a scolding or any condemnation at all.

Do you understand what I have done? 13 You call me your teacher and Lord, and you should, because that is who I am. 14 And if your Lord and teacher has washed your feet, you should do the same for each other. 15 I have set the example, and you should do for each other exactly what I have done for you. 16 I tell you for certain that servants are not greater than their master, and messengers are not greater than the one who sent them. 17 You know these things, and God will bless you, if you do them.

What is the center of our faith? We Christians have been portrayed in some venues as being judgmental, as focusing on the sins of others, as being exclusive, as being mean-spirited, as being conceited. When we hear about Christians in the news, we hear about people who condemn other people for their sins, for their behavior, who are quick to point out which rules have been broken. No matter the station, no matter its philosophy, Christians are depicted as hot-headed, ready to point the finger at anyone who breaks a commandment. “Theological and ethical arguments often descend into personal attacks and name-calling; personal interests often trump the common good of the community; those in need of compassion find judgment instead.”

Does this sound like Jesus? Does this sound like us? Are we hot-headed, judgmental? Do we exclude people from our lives because they are different?

The heart of our faith is not condemnation. The heart of our faith is love. 15 I have set the example, and you should do for each other exactly what I have done for you.

Did Jesus condemn Judas? No. He lovingly washed his feet.

Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts — acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.

What happens if love is the center of our faith? Love builds community. Love replaces conflict. Love welcomes understanding.

Jesus’ love for us is so great that he, unnecessarily, needlessly, suffered death, to show how great his love is. Jesus did not have to die; Jesus could have continued to walk this earth for another two thousand years, filling auditoriums Billy Graham style. But Jesus gave up the one thing he didn’t have to give up: his life. He did it to prove his love for all people.

Maybe you would have proved your love in a different way; crucifixion seems extreme. We try to prove our love, don’t we, by how we spend our time, our money, by where we go, by what we do.
Much of the Bible talks about love, God’s love for us, our love for each other. Paul says in First Corinthians that all the other virtues are meaningless without love.

Now. What happens when we love when another? What was Jesus trying to accomplish? He doesn’t expect us to sit at home thinking about each other. And we don’t! We do for each other. Jesus could have built a kingdom, but he built a community instead. When you hear the phrase, Kingdom of God, it’s not like the Kingdom of America or the Kingdom of Korea. The Kingdom of God is community, a community that is not built with money or property or laws.

Jesus asks:
Do you understand what I have done? 13 You call me your teacher and Lord, and you should, because that is who I am. 14 And if your Lord and teacher has washed your feet, you should do the same for each other. 15 I have set the example, and you should do for each other exactly what I have done for you. 16 I tell you for certain that servants are not greater than their master, and messengers are not greater than the one who sent them. 17 You know these things, and God will bless you, if you do them.

Amen.

1  Wikipedia

2   Elisabeth Johnson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2830

 

If only.

John 11:1-53 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

11 1-2 A man by the name of Lazarus was sick in the village of Bethany. He had two sisters, Mary and Martha. This was the same Mary who later poured perfume on the Lord’s head and wiped his feet with her hair. 3 The sisters sent a message to the Lord and told him that his good friend Lazarus was sick.

4 When Jesus heard this, he said, “His sickness won’t end in death. It will bring glory to God and his Son.”

5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and brother. 6 But he stayed where he was for two more days. 7 Then he said to his disciples, “Now we will go back to Judea.”

8 “Teacher,” they said, “the people there want to stone you to death! Why do you want to go back?”

9 Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in each day? If you walk during the day, you will have light from the sun, and you won’t stumble. 10 But if you walk during the night, you will stumble, because you don’t have any light.” 11 Then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, and I am going there to wake him up.”

12 They replied, “Lord, if he is asleep, he will get better.” 13 Jesus really meant that Lazarus was dead, but they thought he was talking only about sleep.

14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead! 15 I am glad that I wasn’t there, because now you will have a chance to put your faith in me. Let’s go to him.”

16 Thomas, whose nickname was “Twin,” said to the other disciples, “Come on. Let’s go, so we can die with him.”

17 When Jesus got to Bethany, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many people had come from the city to comfort Martha and Mary because their brother had died.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 Yet even now I know that God will do anything you ask.”

23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will live again!”

24 Martha answered, “I know that he will be raised to life on the last day, when all the dead are raised.”

25 Jesus then said, “I am the one who raises the dead to life! Everyone who has faith in me will live, even if they die. 26 And everyone who lives because of faith in me will never really die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord!” she replied. “I believe that you are Christ, the Son of God. You are the one we hoped would come into the world.”

28 After Martha said this, she went and privately said to her sister Mary, “The Teacher is here, and he wants to see you.” 29 As soon as Mary heard this, she got up and went out to Jesus. 30 He was still outside the village where Martha had gone to meet him. 31 Many people had come to comfort Mary, and when they saw her quickly leave the house, they thought she was going out to the tomb to cry. So they followed her.

32 Mary went to where Jesus was. Then as soon as she saw him, she knelt at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw that Mary and the people with her were crying, he was terribly upset 34 and asked, “Where have you put his body?”

They replied, “Lord, come and you will see.”

35 Jesus started crying, 36 and the people said, “See how much he loved Lazarus.”

37 Some of them said, “He gives sight to the blind. Why couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

38 Jesus was still terribly upset. So he went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone rolled against the entrance. 39 Then he told the people to roll the stone away. But Martha said, “Lord, you know that Lazarus has been dead four days, and there will be a bad smell.”

40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you had faith, you would see the glory of God?”

41 After the stone had been rolled aside, Jesus looked up toward heaven and prayed, “Father, I thank you for answering my prayer. 42 I know that you always answer my prayers. But I said this, so that the people here would believe that you sent me.”

43 When Jesus had finished praying, he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The man who had been dead came out. His hands and feet were wrapped with strips of burial cloth, and a cloth covered his face.

Jesus then told the people, “Untie him and let him go.”

 

45 Many of the people who had come to visit Mary saw the things that Jesus did, and they put their faith in him. 46 Others went to the Pharisees and told what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What should we do? This man is working a lot of miracles. 48 If we don’t stop him now, everyone will put their faith in him. Then the Romans will come and destroy our temple and our nation.”

49 One of the council members was Caiaphas, who was also high priest that year. He spoke up and said, “You people don’t have any sense at all! 50 Don’t you know it is better for one person to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed?” 51 Caiaphas did not say this on his own. As high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation. 52 Yet Jesus would not die just for the Jewish nation. He would die to bring together all of God’s scattered people. 53 From that day on, the council started making plans to put Jesus to death.

 

 

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If only. If only someone would have listened. If only someone would have noticed. If only the FBI had followed through. If only his mother hadn’t died. If only he had received the exact specialized help that he needed. If only he wouldn’t have been able to buy that type of gun. If only someone… If only he… If only.

Those are the thoughts plaguing the national conscious this week.

And on the local scene. If only it hadn’t been foggy. If only the car hadn’t crossed the center line. If only there had been no other cars on the road. If only the seatbelt and the airbag had saved him. If only the car…. If only the weather…. If only.

 

21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.

We each have our “if only” moments. If only she had or he had or I had… If only one thing would have been different….something terrible could have been avoided.

What cannot be avoided is death. Lazarus died. Lazarus got sick, did not get better, and died.

Martha and Mary lived with their brother. We might assume that he was the source of their financial security, since neither woman was married. The three of them were family. They were a popular family. John tells us that people came all the way from Jerusalem to comfort the sisters. Unlike many of Jesus’ miracles, Lazarus and Mary and Martha were well-known and respected in the community. Many of Jesus miracles were seemingly random, focusing on whoever happened to catch his attention when he was teaching or walking. Most recipients of Jesus healing do not have names—-the blind beggar, the hemorrhaging woman, the Centurion’s daughter, —just labels, not names, not families, nothing that separates them from a hundred other beggars, women, or children who could have used a healing touch.

Lazarus, on the other hand is well known, and, together with the timing of this resurrection miracle, his being brought back to life becomes the catalyst for the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The governing authorities of the Jewish community, the Sanhedrin, staffed by Pharisees and the Sadducees, were growing fearful of Jesus.

In fact, Jesus’ disciples warned Jesus to stay out of sight:
8 “Teacher,” they said, “the people there want to stone you to death! Why do you want to go back?”
I especially like Thomas’ response:
16 … “Come on. Let’s go, so we can die with him.” Thomas is a realist.

When Jesus attracts large crowds, those crowds are filled with people who admire him and people who fear him. When we fear something, our human nature tells us to fight or flee. The Sanhedrin is fearful. What are they afraid of?

47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What should we do? This man is working a lot of miracles. 48 If we don’t stop him now, everyone will put their faith in him. Then the Romans will come and destroy our temple and our nation.”

“The Romans will destroy our nation.” Their fears were not unfounded or irrational. They lived in a delicate balance with the Roman government. The Jewish nation was unique in that Jews were allowed to practice their own religion and government and keep their own laws—as long as they didn’t cause the Roman government any problems. This arrangement was unusual. By the time of Jesus, Rome had conquered most of Europe and the Middle East, from England to Egypt. Most of those cultures were expected to or forced to adapt to Roman rules and religion, which included worshiping the Emperor, as opposed to worshipping the local gods. The Jews appreciated that they were able to keep their own culture and could continue to worship God at the temple in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin had to protect the Jewish population from anything that would upset the Romans.

49 One of the council members was Caiaphas, who was also high priest that year. He spoke up and said, “You people don’t have any sense at all! 50 Don’t you know it is better for one person to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed?”

It is better for one person to die than for a whole nation to be destroyed. How often are leaders forced to use that logic? Isn’t that modus operandi that leaders use when they make the decision to send soldiers to war?

This miracle of raising Lazarus is very public because, one, the family is well-known, and two, the miracle is impossible: bringing someone back to life after the body has started to decay. It goes against all reason and it attracts too much attention.

Another thing to remember is that Jesus is not the only trouble maker in the neighborhood. There are several subversive groups, including the Zealots and the Sicarii who were working to physically overthrow the Romans. The Zealots and the Sicarii operated as guerrillas, and were hard to arrest, hard to control. The Sicarii were known for killing, with their sharp knives, anyone who was opposed to their philosophy. So Jesus was an easy mark for the Sanhedrin to show the Romans that they were not tolerating any kind of overthrow.

Ironically, Jesus does not represent a violent, physical threat to the Romans in the way the Zealots and the Sicarii do. They are about fighting, motivated by hate. Jesus operates under the rules of love. But Jesus is the one who draws the biggest crowds, who has the most supporters. So, in a twisted way, he is the logical choice to teach the Jews to stay in step with the status quo and, at the same time, prove to the Romans that there’s nothing for them to worry about.

If only. If only Jesus had arrived four days earlier and cured Lazarus. If only, Jesus had taken the advice of his disciples and stayed out of sight.

But for all the reasoning of the disciples, of Martha, of the high priest, Jesus could not avoid death.

Neither can we. But because of Jesus death, we need not fear death.

23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will live again!”

24 Martha answered, “I know that he will be raised to life on the last day, when all the dead are raised.”

25 Jesus then said, “I am the one who raises the dead to life! Everyone who has faith in me will live, even if they die. 26 And everyone who lives because of faith in me will never really die. Do you believe this?

At some point, we will all die, maybe not by bullets from an AR-15, maybe not from a car accident. Some of us may die like Lazarus, from an illness. Like Lazarus, we will be raised and welcomed into the arms of Jesus. On that day”If only” becomes “Amen!”

Equal Treatment: The Woman at the Well John 4

 

The story of the woman at the well has been taught a million times to Sunday School kids, has been the subject of songs, and has been the subject of paintings.

when the story was first presented to me, and probably the first thirty times I heard the story, the woman was portrayed as a sinner. In other words, Bible readers everywhere jumped to conclusions about this woman who happened to be, on one single day in her life, at the well, at noon, by herself. And this woman, for reasons we are not told, for reasons that may be beyond our own experience, has been portrayed as a person of bad character. Jesus surprises the woman with his knowledge of her: You don’t have a husband. You have already been married five times, and the man you are now living with isn’t your husband.

Five husbands? Living with a man who is not her husband? That one sentence, over the centuries has been interpreted to us as meaning the woman was a prostitute or at least a woman who played around. But let’s assume she’s an upright member of the community. Let’s assume that she obeys the laws, including the laws that say if a man dies childless, his brother marries the widow, to carry on the family name. women had to be married to have economic support. Men could divorce whenever they wanted; women could not divorce husbands. If she was living with a man who was not her husband, he could have been a cousin, a boarder paying rent. Is Jesus condemning her or just commiserating with her? I don’t think it matters. Today, I want you to help get past the details of the Samaritan woman’s personal life.

Jesus crosses boundaries when he approaches the woman. First of all, Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each other. There are reasons, reasons that go back hundreds of years and make sense to me. But it’s not important to the story. Second, Jesus talks to a woman. Jewish men talked only to their female family members—wives, mothers, daughters. Jewish men and women did not mix socially, especially not in public. At worship, women sat in their own space. when the men entertained, the women were only seen serving the meal. It was very different from our custom of everybody eating and talking with everyone.

Jesus and the woman have a conversation. They treat each other as equals. That is pretty amazing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in plenty of conversations where I was not treated as an equal. Sometimes it was because I was unfamiliar with the subject, which by itself is not an excuse, but when I’m treated as if I’m too dumb to understand the subject, that’s being treated poorly. Sometimes I’m excluded or ignored because I’m a woman. Sometimes I’m excluded because my credentials are different. Most recently this has happened when I was in a conversation with a group of ordained men. Because I’m not male and not ordained, I apparently don’t have anything interesting or important to say.

Jesus and the woman are equals. She very much understands her religion and her history and her community. In fact, they are willing to debate. Debating is almost a lost from of public discourse. Sure, we have political candidates who participate in events called debates, but in a true debate, the participants listen to each other’s reasoning and are smart enough to then explain how the opponent’s point is in error or is not relevant. True debate requires knowledge and hard thinking; perhaps that is why we see so little of it in daily life. A good debater has to enjoy using the brain as much as a good pitcher or a good quarterback enjoys using his arm. Being willing to debate with someone indicates respect for the other’s knowledge and wisdom.

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. where are you going to get this life-giving water? 12 Our ancestor Jacob dug this well for us, and his family and animals got water from it. Are you greater than Jacob?”

The Samaritans and the Jews have in common their ancestors, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and because of this they also share the promise of a Messiah. She knows about the promise of the Messiah and recognizes the promise in Jesus.

Further proof that she is not an outcast in her community is that, when she determines that Jesus is the Messiah, she runs back to tell everyone in the village about Jesus.
She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Could he be the Messiah?” 30 Everyone in town went out to see Jesus.

If she had a bad reputation in town, why would anyone listen to her, let alone follow her back to the well to meet Jesus?

This woman helped Jesus to tell his story, to share his Godliness, his Divinity, beyond the Temple.
39 A lot of Samaritans in that town put their faith in Jesus because the woman had said, “This man told me everything I have ever done.” 40 They came and asked him to stay in their town, and he stayed on for two days.

41 Many more Samaritans put their faith in Jesus because of what they heard him say. 42 They told the woman, “we no longer have faith in Jesus just because of what you told us. we have heard him ourselves, and we are certain that he is the Savior of the world!”

Last week, we studied the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the dark, at night. Today, we have the story of Jesus approaching the woman in broad, high-noon daylight. Both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had a thirst for the living water that Jesus provides.

How do we know when we are thirsty for living water? This is how I know: when we make a special effort to come to worship. when we pray and when we ask for prayer. when we wonder how we can make our community a safer, happier place. when we depend on our community during the tough times. when we eagerly share our happiness with each other in the good times. when we hear the word of God and it comforts us or challenges us or inspires us.

Jesus taught us that borders are not barriers. Jesus taught to welcome the stranger. Jesus taught us that we are more than flesh and blood. we are spiritual, complicated, amazing beings who need not only the water that springs from the earth and falls from the sky: we need the living water that is blown through us by the Spirit , provided through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Today, we gather to let that Spirit flow through us and wrap us in true love. Amen.